You have to have roots. Even for those who lean towards a freer, more exploratory disposition in jazz, the best of the lot have generally spent some time studying and playing within the tradition. Pianist Dave Burrell, whose work with Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown has exemplified him as an icon of the experimental and the avant-garde, places things in perfect perspective halfway through Expansion. In between a compelling free duet with bassist William Parker and a more aggressive trio piece that adds drummer Andrew Cyrille, is a solo rendition of the Irving Berlin tune, "They Say It's Wonderful." In the space of seven minutes, Burrell demonstrates both his uncanny ability to play in and out of the tradition, and exactly how important knowledge of one is to being credible in the other.
Burrell calls this group his Full-Blown Trio, although the name may be somewhat misleading. Burrell is not an aggressive free player along the lines of Cecil Taylor. For one thing, his touch his lighter; even when he is creating chordal clusters there is a certain amount of air that makes things much more approachable.
The program runs the gamut from out-and-out free pieces like "Double Heartbeat," where Cyrille restricts his playing to the bass drum and toms, resulting in a rich bottom end that is punctuated by Burrell's sharper attack, to the more structured "Coup d'Etat," which is the nearest things get to out-and-out swing. For contrast there is "Cryin' Out Loud," which pits Burrell against Parker's arco bass in a duet where the two seem to be pulling at each other more than working together, and the more serene "In the Balance," where Burrell's abstract piano and Cyrille's light cymbal work is lent a more folk-like texture through Parker's work on the West African kora. Here the trio explores more subtle nuances, with shaded phrases that create a richly hypnotic ambience.
Elsewhere the trio explores quirky and irregular meters on the title track, and make a musical statement about the recent political climate on the militaristic "About Face," where Burrell seems to relish isolating brief musical phrases, repeating them as if to mirror the repetition of soldiers marching, at one point even throwing down block chords that clearly say "left... left... left... right... left."
That it has taken nearly forty years for an American label to record this under-appreciated hero of the in and the out is almost criminal. But, thankfully, the recently launched High Two label, with world-wide distribution by AUM Fidelity, has seen fit to right that wrong and, in fact, begin recording some of the Philadelphia scene's most innovative and forward-thinking artists. Dave Burrell's Expansion is, hopefully, but the first in a series that will bring greater visibility to a scene that resonates with its own character.
Visit Dave Burrell on the web.
Personnel: Dave Burrell (piano), William Parker (bass, kora), Andrew Cyrille (drums)